If religion is a piece of cloth we wear, caste is like flesh and blood: Award-winning Dalit activist

Written by: Maitreyee Boruah
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It's difficult to miss the hoardings of BR Ambedkar that have cropped up in every nook and cranny of Bengaluru to mark the 125th birth anniversary of the father of the Indian Constitution on Thursday (April 14).

There is no doubt the political battle to own the legacy of the Dalit icon is in full-swing at a time when the country is once again witnessing a renewed vigour in the Dalit movement in the wake of the suicide of the Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad.

Dr BR Ambedkar

OneIndia spoke to Bengaluru-based Dalit activist Y Mariswamy (43), who has been awarded Bhim Ratna award, 2016, in the field of human rights by Samata Sainik Dal, a social organisation founded by Ambedkar himself in 1926, with the idea of safeguarding the rights of all the oppressed sections of society.

What does it mean to be a Dalit in today's India, when once again Dalit movement has picked up after the tragic death of Rohith Vemula?

As a Dalit, I face identity crisis. I say this because, if I meet a stranger, he/she behaves with me nicely. Unfortunately, on most of the occasions they start acting weird once they come to know about my caste. I can give you many such examples.

The reality is that caste-based discrimination and atrocities are rampant in society. The sad demise of Rohith is only one of the instances of many such cases, where young men and women from the community have been forced to commit suicide. Many of them have been killed also.

The police generally refuse to register cases of atrocities on Dalits under SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Hardly victims of caste-based violence and discrimination have got justice. Our constitutional rights have been denied to us.

What was the reason behind starting the organisation Samajika Parivarthana Janandolana (SPJ)?

I have been part of the Dalit struggle in Karnataka as a school-going kid. I have been closely associated with the Dalit movement as a member of the Dalit Sangarsh Samiti. However, in 2007, we felt that in the larger Dalit movement scenario the issues of children and youths from the community are hardly addressed. Earlier, Dalit or marginalized perspective was missing in the arena of child rights.

That is when we formed SPJ. We work for education of children to bring social transformation. Our areas of focus are common school system, child malnutrition, child labour, child marriage, child trafficking and atrocities on children.

Most of the victims of child malnutrition and child labour are from SC and ST communities, as they are poor and come from marginalized sections.

We also work with the Dalit youngsters in helping them get hostel and scholarship facilities. Because of SPJ's work with Dalit youths and children, now Dalit organisations across the state have started talking about the issues of children and youngsters. This is one of our biggest achievements.

What is the status of Dalits in Karnataka? How far they have succeeded in achieving all-round development in terms of access to education and job opportunities?

On a positive note, now there is a lot of awareness about Dalit-related issues. We have several leaders talking about our problems and what could be done to end the plight of Dalits. We have political representatives in the Assembly.

There is access to education for Dalit children. The Dalit youths have jobs. However, most of the progress is on the surface level. Still same kinds of discrimination exist in a subtle manner.

A lot needs to be done to end caste-based discrimination in every walk of life. There are many instances in Bengaluru itself, where even officers from the Dalit community have been denied rented accommodation by prospective tenants because of their caste.

Because of privatization of schools and closure of a large-number of government schools, these poor children have no access to education. Similarly, public sector jobs have reduced and private sector has no reservation. Thus many of our youths are unemployed. Moreover, our Dalit politicians have stopped raising Dalit-related issues to avoid antagonising the upper caste voters.

How old and strong is the Dalit movement in Karnataka?

The Dalit movement in Karnataka was started in 1970s. It was at its peak in the 1990s. The movement was very strong. It vociferously raised issues like land rights, social equality, end of violence and atrocities against Dalits and hostel and scholarship facilities for youths, to name a few. The Dalit movement also relentlessly worked to end exploitative caste-based religious practices like Bettale Seve and Devadasi system.

As a part of Bettale Seva ritual, earlier Dalit men and Dalit women offered their prayers in temples completely naked. Most of the Dalit and tribal girls were married off to a temple god or deity, as part of the Devadasi system.

Bengaluru-based Dalit activist Y Mariswamy

In Karnataka, Dalits are the majority with 1.08 crore people, out of 6.11 crore population in the state according to the Karnataka Caste survey, which is out in the public domain recently. Does the figures in anyway proved beneficial for the community?

I welcome the revelation of the caste survey. Now, the figures are out in the open. Dalits are majority in terms of numbers. However, other castes have been always politically and economically dominant.

Now, I am hopeful political parties will give the responsibility of leadership to Dalits, to attract Dalit voters. All these years, Dalits have been used only as vote banks and later forgotten by all political parties.

What do you have to say about well-off Dalits giving up quota?

It is a very controversial issue. The number of creamy layer people in the community is very less. They don't compete with the poor Dalits. The issue of creamy layer Dalits is used by the dominant castes to divide Dalits. The well-off Dalits should work for the all-round development of the community. Unfortunately that is not the case. Because of this a new set of Dalits are emerging.

Do you think a casteless society can be built?

No, it is impossible. Instead of talking about building a casteless society, why not build an equal society, where all castes have equal opportunities and rights, without any discrimination.

Many Dalits have converted into other religions like Buddhism, Islam and Sikhism. However, the Dalit tag never leaves them. If religion is a piece of cloth we wear, caste is like flesh and blood.

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